Nature enthusiasts must not miss a trip to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), squeezed between Mumbai and Thane, the only national park in the world that falls within the municipal limits of a metropolis. At Borivali, a sudden turn off the Western Express Highway takes you from the endless stream of trucks, noise, pollution and people, bang into the middle of wilderness.
Don’t let the unimpressive main gate fool you. Almost as soon as you’ve bought your ticket and begun the journey, you notice a perceivable drop in temperature, lose the connectivity on your cellphone and grudgingly admit that this, indeed, is the wild.
There are an estimated 40 leopards in SGNP (often sighted by day) and neighbouring Tungareshwar Sanctuary. Sadly, the leopard-human conflict in SGNP has escalated in recent years. The Sanjay Gandhi National Park is also home to the Bamboo Pit Viper. But this hasn’t deterred locals from coming here for their morning walk, yoga or spiritual sustenance. The park receives an estimated 8,000-10,000 visitors every day. This number increases to one lakh during Shivratri, when devotees throng the Mahadeo Temple near the Kanheri Caves.
The park is spread over 103 sq km and more butterfly and bird species are seen here than in all of the UK. You can see some of the former at the Nature Interpretation Centre’s Butterfly Garden, a 5-minute walk from the main entrance. The centre organises programs for visitors all year. See rare lilies and insects in the monsoon, reptiles in August and September, butterflies and birds (both migratory and local) from winter to summer. The centre also organises half-day nature trails. It is vital that visitors book these trips a few weeks in advance since special permissions need to be obtained to wander beyond the 5 sq km area that the public can access up to 7.00 in the evening.
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There are two lakes here—Vihar and Tulsi—that are water reservoirs for Mumbai. The park’s core area forms the catchment area of the lakes and is off-limits for visitors. The Bombay Natural History Society (bnhs.org) centre and museum, ahead of the NIC, organises day tours through these forested areas, which are particularly beautiful in the monsoons.
They’ll take you to Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary, to Salim Ali Point, and along the Shilonda Trail among other nature and bird-watching trails. Beyond the NIC and BNHS is the SGNP Office. Ride the Van Rani, or toy train complete with miniature railway station across the 2.5 km track to the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial on the 620-feet Pavilion Hill.
The Gandhi memorial itself offers views of the park at one side and the sprawl of Borivali on the other. The Kanheri Cave Complex in the middle of the park lies along an extremely picturesque but very isolated route through the forest.
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It is not safe to take this path unless you are in a large group. Incidents of theft and mugging have been reported from time to time. It’s not advisable to visit alone, or even in pairs. Built between the 1st and 9th centuries AD, the Kanheri Leni is a cluster of 109 cells, a prayer hall, a stupa, water cisterns, and resident halls within which are carved ornate statues of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas. Take a moment to survey the park from a slight elevation from the Buddhist monastic caves.
The verdant expanse before you, the ancient volcanic rock of the caves behind you and the forest air filled with birdsong makes even a lingering memory of the city disappear.